Let’s Talk About Writing Groups!

 Before we get to the discussion today, I’d like to thank any readers who purchased and commented on Warrior, my newly released novel. For those of you who don’t know what it is, you can check it out here. If it looks interesting and you read it, be sure to leave some feedback somewhere. I love hearing from readers.

Anyways, I’d like to talk about writing groups today. They’re an important part of any person’s development as a writer, whether they take place online or face-to-face. Why? Writing groups get you in touch with other people, writers and readers, and people are good for your writing.

We need audiences when we work on our writing. A single person is not capable of looking at their work and seeing all the necessary revisions needed. More importantly, our best work happens when we write with others, not alone.

We’ve all had that one misconception of a good writer. They’re that person who sits in a room lit by candlelight. They peck away at a typewriter for hours, agonizing over each line, and everything they write is golden because that person has something special that no one else has.

This is a false notion. All great writers have a great editor, or a horde of them, that help out during the writing process. When there’s a group of people reading your work, you have the benefit of multiple perspectives on your writing. One person can read your work and have a problem with something. You might not change it. If four people have a problem with the same thing and actually talk their way through what specifically troubles them about it, then you actually have something to work with.

Writing groups are essential for this reason. Your story will never please every single person on the planet, but it can become something incredible by working with the people around you. And writing groups are a great way to get free editing and consulting on your work 🙂

The next big reason you should join a writing group: you will read other people’s work.

Reading and responding to another person’s work will not only let you experience a broader scope of writing, it will make you a better writer. I’m serious. A 2003 study by Jay Simmons examined several classes of high school and college students over the course of three years. Their collective data showed that students who had the opportunity to respond to peer writing the most often also scored higher in writing assignments.

So do yourself a favor and get a writing group together. Make a google doc, meet some locals. If you’ve got an internet connection, there’s really no excuse for writing alone. Try out some websites like fictionpress.com or wattpad.com. If you’re not writing strictly original fiction, join the communities at fanfiction.net or archiveofourown. They’re all great sources for writers to make connections with one another.

So audience, what have your experiences with writing groups been? If any?

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby!… In Fiction.

What is your fiction saying about sexuality and relationships? Probably a lot more than you’d think, and I want to talk about the choices we make as writers when it comes to this. No, I’m not talking about how well-endowed you make your characters, or giving people unrealistic expectations about how mind-blowingly amazing sex will be on the first time, every time (but we should talk about that, too… eventually). I’m talking about the gritty stuff: the relationship. The ways in which two characters interact and how that is received by the world. I struggled for a long time thinking of how to start this conversation, but I finally settled on relating an experience to you all from my earlier years as a college student.

A friend of mine wrote an amazing short story about a young man who ends up giving shelter to a woman fleeing her abusive boyfriend. She waits at his house for a friend to pick her up, and then thanks him and heads out with her friend.

When I first read this story, I thought it was amazing. I still think it’s amazing. The emotion and the raw display of humanity in this story felt just perfect. It was a snapshot of real, gritty life, and it just captured so much about our generation (us 20-somethings) in the small details of the story. More importantly, it captured something distinctly human in the characters.

While it was well received by many people in the class, three young men took issue with something: the guy did not get the girl at the end of the story.

Let me break that down for you. The guy (a random stranger to this woman) does not “get” (as in a kiss, a good fuck, a phone number, a date) the girl (the woman who was just beaten by an abusive ex). This bothered them.

Just the thought of turning it into a love story made me go a little berserk. Why? Because the main character, the guy, and this woman were not meant to be in a relationship. For one, the story was not about that. It was about what a painful, messy experience life can be, and sometimes we can actually be a decent person for someone else.

How would letting the guy “get” the girl ruin that message? For one, it has the chance of reducing the female character to a “prize”.

What is probably the worst part, however, is that it cheapens the main character. I liked him as a character, a lot. He was written to be a decent human being, and the reader got to see him struggling in a dilemma of what the right thing to do is. For him, he questioned whether or not to call the police, whether to take the woman back to his house in the first place, and whether or not to confront the much larger and scarier guy she ran from. These are all feasibly real-life problems someone may have to confront, and this character, while he may not have been the most supportive or helpful, did try to help this woman. If his only incentive for helping her is that kiss, or date, at the end of the story, it warps his actions and the audience’s perceptions of what to expect in these situations.

What does it say about how sexuality and relationships are portrayed in media if three guys in my writing class wanted the main character to get the girl in the end? In reality, the last thing a person fleeing abuse wants is to be ravished by a stranger (think about it for a second, you’ll get the ‘creepy’ vibes). Not one of these guys in the class would (hopefully) try to get with a random lady fleeing an attacker. But for them, the story felt incomplete without that promise for intimacy at the end.

I don’t blame them. I blame the formula people establish for so many books, shows, and movies out there. Most fictional works involving a guy and a girl have them get together at the end. Hell, even the gay stories do it. The hero conquers evil and the protagonist wins the heart of their true love. It’s how it goes. It’s textbook narrative structure. I even happen to like this structure, but I think there are some social problems we need to be aware of when we write in it, and that’s what I want to talk about, after that very long-winded introduction.

I recently finished up a novel for publication (Warrior will be out in July! Lesbians and fantasy adventure awaits! Tell your friends) and when revising it, I noticed something… annoying about the main character. Can you guess what it was?

This girl cared way too much about ending up old, alone, and a virgin, and it wasn’t even in a comical way. Why did I write her that way? Why did I make the main character’s drive something as simplistic as “to get the girl”?

I can’t say for sure, but it made me realize that I was saying something with my characters. I was saying what I expected people to act like, I was showing what I expected the hero to act like. And it wasn’t necessarily the best message.

To give the short story, I found redeeming qualities everywhere, and the character was not so far gone to save her. One thing I did pay a lot of attention to in the story was the portrayal of gay and lesbian relationships (the main characters are lesbians, come on guys).

Here is where I break out the pet peeves. I am very, very tired of seeing lesbian relationships portrayed in stories where the entire plot hangs on the acceptance of that relationship as something socially acceptable.

Why? It raises the question of whether or not LGTBQIA relationships are acceptable, and the only answer to that is yes, they are. I understand a need to explore prejudice and struggle, but seeing it played out every time and in every story can make the audience feel as if there is something deviant about these sexual relationships.

And it does not have to be an LGTBQIA relationship. Portraying the female character as the passive damsel, the male character as the sexually dominating force, both of these are perfect examples of how a story’s portrayal of relationships can set a standard for those reading it. These portrayals are not a standard, they are not a norm, but we can begin to see them that way if we are not careful about how we write our worlds, especially fantasy and science fiction universes, where any construct of relationship is truly possible.

I made sexual relationships between characters of any gender a norm in my universe, save for the royalty who are expected to pop out a baby because, you know, babies need to happen. And even then, there were ways around that minor detail that the characters discussed. There are so many other ways to explore relationship dynamics between characters, however. It never just has to be, “the hero gets their true love.” Yes, that’s an important part to a lot of base fantasy narratives, but it does not have to be the defining aspect. Like the main character in my friend’s story, the quality of writing does not have to hinge on the character’s sexual conquest.

What I am trying to get at here is that writers set up what is “normal” in their worlds, and readers pay attention to that. Not every story needs to break out of these molds we created, but all stories featuring a strong romantic relationship should contain some level of awareness.

I’m going to leave my thoughts on the subject there, because any further efforts to expand have left me dissatisfied, and I’d rather tease out more meaning in conversation, if you’d be obliged, readers.

Accomplishments, Talking to Melissa Marr, and Being a Writer

Recently, I did something I had not yet done as a writer: I placed first in a writing contest. I mean, yeah, I’ve gotten second and honorable mentions; I’ve placed “best in category x”, but never had I swept the whole show away. Last night I did though.

For my efforts, I got a $50 gift card that I quickly emptied by purchasing some self-congratulatory books (“The Difference Engine”, “Leviathan Wakes” and William Gibson’s newest collection of essays. They’re all fabulous. I suggest reading them). I also got something more valuable than money. I got a chance to speak one-on-one with young adult fiction author Melissa Marr. Now, I am not a fan of her books or anything. I have only read small excerpts. But from what I did read, I could tell she knew her craft. I got to ask her about publishing, what to do, what to avoid, you know the questions.

And you know what? She gave me the most sound and concise advice I have ever received in the history of asking about publishing. For that I thank you, Melissa Marr. I don’t want to quote her, but she made it very clear that if I wanted my sole occupation in life to be writing, I needed an agent.

That got me thinking. Do I want to be just a writer? Or am I happy with it being a side-gig?

The novels I usually write are popular with a very small, very loyal fanbase. Lesbian fiction of any kind won’t get you rich nine times out of ten, but I did not win the contest with lesbian fiction. I won it with steampunk.

So my writing career may branch out. I think I’m at the point where I’m thinking, ‘I’ll write whatever I damn well please,’ which is fine for now. In the victory haze of the contest, I spoke with a lot of friends and family members about being a writer. My grandmother commented to me that I was the only one in the family with the sheer willpower to sit down and write for extended periods of time. I told her that having that patience to sit down and write was all one needed to be a writer.

And it’s true. Writers need to be willing to invest lifetimes into this thing. They need to be desperate and hopeful enough to devote hours to a manuscript then doggedly pursue routes of publication. Writers hardly get the respect they deserve because of the romanticized image of a person sitting at the keyboard and typing out pages and turning them into bricks of gold. Well, writing is a lot messier and time-consuming than that. Writing as a career sort of has a catch-22 to it. On one end, people have the misconception that writers are born great; on the other, they think anyone can do it.

The real answer lies in the middle. Anyone who wants to be a writer desperately enough can do it. Not anyone who wants to get rich. Anyone who honestly, truly wants to write, to say something worthwhile will find a way to do it, and not all of those avenues may involve an immediate payout. A true writer puts pen to paper or fingertip to keyboard with the desire to convey an emotion, thought, event, whatever that has affected them in some way and will affect their readers. We don’t al have immaculate grammar. We don’t all have perfect Standard accents when we speak. We are just crazy enough to sit still and listen to the words in our heads.

Chapter Two: The Break

In the spirit of keeping you all privy to my writing process, I’m going to post chapter 2 up here as well as revisions when they happen. I feel like it is insightful to watch a fellow writer go through the motions of creating a work. As of now, I still do not have much of a plot in mind. I’m writing into a blinding void, it feels like. Some stories are like that. You have no idea where they will end up; you just have to keep going.

Chapter Two: The Break

She did not get to spend the money on lavish things. She tried, but with no success. She stood in the market, morning dew glistening off stalls as the sun rose, and all she could bring herself to approach was the food cart.

This one stacked bread loaves high up along with tumbling piles of fruit. The myriad of colors whetted her appetite more than anything else: red, orange, green, they all lay there like gems in the morning light. Elissa fingered the pouch tied at her waist. She had stashed her leathers in exchange for a shirt a trousers and had washed up before braving the streets. With a little work, Elissa looked like a plain citizen.

She untied the coin pouch and approached the cart. The vendor looked up at her with a sleepy expression. She kept her attention focused on the fruit and kneaded the pouch full of silver. “Can I help you?” asked the vendor. Elissa looked up at him.

“Yes,” she said slowly. She pulled the opening loose of the drawstrings and stared down at the silver coins before drawing out two of them and plunking them on the cart edge. The red fruit looked good. Elissa could not remember the name of it, but she picked it up and hefted it, testing the ripeness. “This one,” she said, gesturing to the vendor.

He nodded at her and pocketed the two coins. “Have a good day.”

Elissa retied the pouch of coins and walked farther into the markets. She bit into the fruit experimentally. She could not quite remember the taste. When the tangy splash hit her tongue, she smiled. It was almost as good as she had imagined. Juices ran down her chin and she wiped her face with her sleeve, staining the flaxen shirt a dark red. It looked better that way, she mused. A scrawny girl eating fruit without a care was certainly less threatening than the scrawny thief who had possibly made a fatal error in her career.

The fruit was good, not as sharp a flavor as she would prefer, but nothing would probably wash the bitterness from her mouth. Elissa knew she probably had to leave the city. She was more shocked that the man had let her leave in the first place. Then again, she was not much of a threat unless she warned the people she stole from that the Hand was in possession of the journal.

Elissa shook her head and looked around the major road. People had begun to trickle onto the streets in a larger force. It had been a quiet morning. More people would be better for concealment.

A man walked along the side of the street up ahead. He looked different from the surrounding people, considering he wore a deep, black vest over a rough tunic. Most people learned to avoid those wearing a black vest. It usually meant trouble. His stride was purposeful and he glanced over at Elissa more than once. She held the fruit up to her face and ducked down an alley as casually as she could. If a hand wanted her dead, she needed to speed up her departure.

She clutched the fruit too tightly and the juices ran over her fingers. Elissa tossed it aside into a trash heap and dunked her hands in a rain trap, shaking the cold droplets of water from her fingertips.

Footsteps clacked down the alleyway after her. She refused to look and continued in the opposite direction. Looking back would only provoke an attack sooner. Instead, she took a series of pathways that led to the busiest street of the city. At this time of morning, it was choked with carts and foot-traffic of people setting out for work. Don’t look back, don’t look back. By the gods, did she want to though. People pressed into her. Hands slipped by. She shoved aside the hand of a man who reached for her purse. The hand took hold of her wrist and the man yanked her aside with a wrench that nearly popped her shoulder out of place.

“Hey!” She pulled her arm free and got a better glimpse of her assailant: another Hand, a man in a dark vest. He stared at her with mock confusion, as if he did not know what he had done. She retreated into the larger groups of travelers. The Hands would not risk causing a scene in the middle of the market. It would work better than going to the guards, who would only defer to the authority of the Hand. If she could just disappear, she might live to see the next day.

She followed the flow of traffic leading out of town. It mostly consisted of traders setting out to do business with the outlying villages. That was what she needed to do, get out with one of those trader caravans and dissolve into one of the many villages. She made it most of the way down the main road without drawing attention. Elissa picked a larger caravan and integrated herself with the people. She matched pace, demeanor, and managed to pick up a large sack of something and hoist it over her shoulder. I look just like one of the lackeys, she thought. The contents of the sack shifted: potatoes, she decided. They were hauling produce.

While they walked, she thought up a backstory, who told her to help and why, vague locations that would keep any nosy task managers busy. A motion on the edge of the street drew her sight. Someone pointed directly at her, no one from the caravan, a man standing on the side of the street. Elissa kept walking, sack over shoulder. The man who pointed moved out of her line of sight. She focused on the rear of the wagon again. They moved out from the market and to the opening leading to the town gate. This was by far the most dangerous part. The crowds thinned out in the suddenly wider roads and the market stalls fell away. The traffic still kept up because of the morning rush, but it still felt like stepping out into an open field as a mouse. An owl would most likely swoop down and snatch her up.

But the caravan stumbled on toward the gates with no interrupts. The caravan passed through, Elissa walking through the gates with them. No one moved to stop her. Still she could not breathe easy. She felt naked out on the field. No tools. No leathers. Keep moving. The caravan quickly branched off the main road for a smaller path heading south. They moved toward the forest, a perfect place to get lost in. Elissa looked around at the smaller group. She estimated thirty people remained, though not all of them likely worked together. The caravan rode into the forest that surrounded town, the large pine trees towering over them at immense heights. It was not the thickest of cover, but one could easily lose themselves within. Elissa had barely ventured into the woods during her stay in the city. She knew a few markers and destination points, but not enough to claim competency.

As they walked on, Elissa noticed some movement farther in the forest. She turned and tried to see what lay out there, but as soon as she shifted her gaze, the movement stopped. One of the caravan members must have noticed her, because the man leaned in and said, “You’ll never catch sight of ‘em.”

Elissa turned and looked at the man. He looked the part of a farmer with his roughly patched up clothes and unshaven face. His eyes held a glint of intelligence she could not quite place, however. “Catch sight of who?” she asked.

“The damn treewalkers, that’s who,” said the farmer. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have them keeping the nasties at bay, but they’re just a little unsettling, you know?”

“I don’t,” said Elissa. She turned from the man and focused on the road ahead of her once more. The farmer did not notice his dismissal, however.

“See, that’s the thing of it, though,” he said. “They move through this place, completely untraceable thanks to their charms work.”

“But that’s illegal.” She readjusted the bag of potatoes.

The farmer shrugged. “Doesn’t stop them.”

“What about the king’s scryers?”

“They can’t touch the treewalkers.”

Elissa shook her head. “That’s impossible,” she said.

“They found a way though, just saying.” The farmer finally turned away from her and caught up with his friends. Elissa looked back over to the forest. She could have sworn she saw movement between the trees. It should be easy to see them with the trees so widespread. They had to be using charms. And the Hand had not killed them for it.

The cart rolled onward. They had to be close to a town. Elissa slowly approached the edge of the cart and lay down her sack of potatoes. No one seemed to notice. Maybe they thought she needed a rest. Elissa let her gait slow down so she fell behind the rest of the travelers. As soon as they moved a ways ahead, she moved off the path and into the forest, toward where she thought she saw the movement. She expected to see a person behind every tree trunk. Movement kept catching the corner of her eyes. Still, nothing revealed itself. She walked deeper and deeper into the forest, out of earshot of the caravan. When the silence of the forest seemed to press down on her, she thought about turning back. She looked up at the canopy then glanced over her shoulder. She turned to leave.

They materialized from nowhere, three men, all of them dressed as members of the hand. Before Elissa could react, they had her. Two gripped her arms tightly while one other stooped, delivering a crushing blow to her stomach. The wind flew from her lungs and she gasped at nothing for a few moments. As soon as she drew in a lungful of air, however, the onslaught resumed. An elbow connected with her shoulder, forcing her down to the ground while the fist returned to her face. Spots dazzled her vision and her jaw radiated a new pain. Someone kicked her back. The blows picked up quickly and though they tried to make her, Elissa did not cry out.

The man in front of her grabbed her by the chin and the pain spiked from her jaw again. He forced her to meet his gaze and he sneered down at her. “Don’t have anything to say?” he asked.

Elissa did nothing. She looked down and waited. The smack to her face came just as she knew it would. Her jaw felt like it was on fire. She could only hope they would kill her. The next punch came her to chest. She had hoped he would stick to her face, that way she might fall unconscious, but the Hand would never be so stupid when punishing an unruly citizen. She should have never taken the job. Too late for regrets.

One behind her struck the back of her skull. This time she cried out and her sight wavered. Neniton, take me from this world. The god of subterfuge did not reward failures. Still she doubted all the godly might in the cosmos could intervene now. One more punch, and she knew nothing more.

Kalanat

Her arrow hit its mark easily. Usually, the Hand was so careful in their territory, but something distracted them today. It allowed the arrow tip to pierce the man’s heart and startle the other two. They dropped whoever they held and looked around wildly, reaching for weapons. Kalanat drew another arrow from her quiver and aimed, but she was not so lucky a second time. The men dissolved before her eyes, though the last arrow she released skimmed an arm. They ran.

“Damn their charms,” she muttered. Kalanat lowered her bow. The abandoned figure slumped forward next to the dead Hand member. Two other archers dropped down from the trees. “And where were your arrows?”

“They had wards for overhead attacks. I guess they did not expect a ground assault.” The woman who spoke approached her. They all wore cloaks dyed a deep green and carried longbows as tall as themselves. “Kalanat, they had someone.”

Kalanat glanced back over at the slumped figure. “A traitor trying to escape the city, most likely.” The three women approached. The figure on the ground was a woman, a severely beaten woman. Kalanat ran forward a knelt down. She reached out and gently touched a shoulder. “Sosux,” she whispered. Her senses flared, briefly extended into the life of the woman laying before her. She turned to her comrades. “Fetch a litter,” she said, removing her hands. “There are too many broken bones to carry her back.” She glanced back down and tried to get a good look at the woman’s face. She reached down and brushed aside the feathery black hair. She was pale, her fair skin marred with fresh bruises from the assault. Her jaw looked crooked, broken severely. As the others ran back to the village, she sighed and pulled her hand from the woman’s face. “You made the Hand very mad, whatever you did,” she said. The small woman winced, though she remained unconscious. Kalanat shook her head. The Hand could easily decide that retrieving this broken woman was worth taking on a few treewalkers. They had to get back to the village quickly.

Revision, Revision

Other writers are always obsessed with how everyone else works through their writing process. A bit ago, I posted chapter one to a work I’m not quite sure where I am going with, but I wanted to write in it. I initially wrote that first chapter about 6 months ago instead of paying attention to my Contemporary Literature class. It was scrawled in a journal. It had no title. It just had the character: Elissa. Then I typed it up and made some loose revisions. I cleaned up the repetition a little, cut out the tangents, made it a bit more solid. I titled it: Those Who Found Elissa.

Recently, I went back and made some more revisions. I probably will end up changing more after the whole story is written out, but these are some minor adjustments I’ve made. With my writing process, I am constantly making little adjustments like this through the course of the writing. After the tenth time, they seem like major adjustments. Now that I’ve explained my process, I think I’ll let you all look over the revisions just so you can see what I target in my writing. Everyone is different.

Those who found Elissa

Chapter One

Something tickled a strand of Elissa’s hair. Maybe a spider, she dare not move to brush it away, though when the tickle moved down to her throat she raised a hand and flicked it aside, taking flecks of dirt with. She imagined she was quite covered in it by now, a healthy coating to assist her blending in with the shadows. The night had swallowed her up and her pursuers were none the wiser.

Her thighs ached though, by Neniton did her thighs ache, and her ankles too; she could not move her feet into a comfortable positionplace. One shift against the pebbled ground would give away her positionlocation. She raised herself slightly, untensing her muscles for a moment before easing back into the crouch. She had lost track of time. It could not have been more than an hour. Still, that was a long time for three drunk, possibly now sobered men to stumble around looking for her in the middle of the night. She heard them moving, pushing things, shaking boxes.

“Where are you, bitchthief?” one called out. She hid between the outer and inner wall of an old house. A loose wooden plank hung on its nail in front of her. She stared out the knothole at the men. Behind her, sod walls and support beams concealed her. Her right hand cramped from clutching at the worn journal she had taken. She felt the old leather crack and creak against her fingers and tried to breathe a little softer.

“Did she get beyond the wall?” one of them asked. The three dark silhouettes gathered in the center of the square. One of them spat.

“No one has seen her. She’s likely still in the town.”

“We don’t know that,” said another. “Maybe she knows a different way out.”

“No matter. Give the authorities a description of the little rat. Someone will find her.”

“And if they don’t?” one asked.

“I’d rather not think about that.” The three of them stood there, shuffling, swayingswaying against the nighttime breeze. They mumble to one another as they walked away, abandoning the dark square once more. Elissa breathed a little deeper. It was just her and the night again. She waited a while longer, despite the way her legs shook. Finally, she pushed the wooden plank forward on its nail and slid the boardit aside. The fresh air felt so good in her lungs. She unfolded herself as she stepped out of her hiding place, holding back groans of pain when her joints protested. Her legs wobbled, but she had the journal. She sighed and brushed off her dark clothes. The morning dew was already beginninghad already begun to collect on the cobblestone, though the sun had yet to rise.

Elissa set off in the opposite direction the men had gone. It would take her longer that way, but she would be safe. She stayed in the shadows and side-passages. Thankfully, no one else lingered on the streets that night and she. She made it back to the patron’s house easily. It was a shabby home, nearly identical to the others surrounding it. Pieces of the roof hung off itself; the windows were darkened. It was designed to not draw attention, placed in a shady neighborhood and surrounded by quiet homes. Elissa had to pause and admire her employer’s discretion. Usually, she took jobs from the wealthy. They often employed her to steal some meaningless trinket from a rival, and then gloated about having it once it came into their possession.

She shook her head and ducked down the side passage, a small patch of dirt between the two houses. Her hand searched along the rough wooden paneling until her fingers slipped into the catch. She stopped and pulled the false panel aside. She slipped into the revealed space and closed herself into the darkness. The passage was small; she stooped and felt ahead blindly as she descended into the basement. She Elissa finally caught hold of a curtain and pulled it aside. She stepped into the false wardrobe and opened the door, revealing a small, well-lit room. The basement held an assortment of candles and little else. A table lay in the far corner with two chairs. Her employer sat in one.

“Welcome back, shadowbird,” he said. The man dressed in plain trousers and a cotton shirt. He kept his beard well-trimmed, though not immaculate, and his hair was always presentable. On the whole, he made looked the part of a completely unremarkable merchant. Though Elissa would be a fool to think him just that.

“I have it,” she said, ignoring the handle. She walked over to the table and waited for the next move.

“I know you do. You wouldn’t be foolish enough to return without it,” he said. The man stroked his beard lazily and watched a candle’s flame. The light caught the copper strands as he wound them around his fingershis fingers wound them.

Elissa dropped the journal on the table. Her fingers ached as she flexed themhand ached as she flexed it, free of the burden at last. The man gestured to the chair opposite him, but she remained standing. “They searched for a long time,” she said, remembering the frantic shouts as the men had overturned the market square looking for her.

“Of course they would,” said her employer. “You would too if it were yours.” He reached out and laid a hand on the journal cover. He smiled and felt the grooves her hand fingers had left in the leather before he hooked a finger underslipped a hand under the flap and opened the journal. He turned the pages slowly, almost daring Elissa to look. She kept her gaze firmly planted on the table’s surface. She had no desire to be caught any more in this man’s business. “Ah, you did well.” The man readjusted himself and bent over the table to better study the pages. He pressed a finger to the page and traced the path of the lettering. “You don’t have any idea what’s in here, do you?” her employer asked. He stopped tracing and looked up at her.

Elissa shrugged. “It wasn’t my place to look.”

Her employer chuckled. “My blind little shadowbird,” he sighed and continued reading. “Perhaps you should have looked.” This time, Elissa could not help looking glancing at the inkblots on the page. She could not make out wordsThe words did not take shape, but she knew they were not prose. No, he was reading a list.

“What does it show? Supplies? An incantation?” she asked.

The man shook his head. “Even better.” He shoved the notebook toward her. The inkblots took shapeformed something more meaningful. “Names.”

The list was long, tightly packed with the short scrawl of people’s names, signatures, and little tallies written in the margins. “Whose names?” she asked.

“Traitors,” said the man. He closed the flap of the book. “Illegal practitioners, dangerous people.” The information chilled Elissa’s core. If she had just given a list of names to a Hand, she had killed every person on it.

“And to what purpose do you intend to use this list?” she asked. That was a mistake. Elissa usually enforced a rule: never know the ends to an employer’s means.

The man laughed. “You know what we intend to do.”

Elissa shifted. She stepped away from the table. “You can’t kill all those people.”

“Of course we can,” said the man, waving a hand. “We do it already. You know this.”

She looked down at the journal. “I’ll take it back.”

“I doubt that,” said the man. Elissa looked back at him. Her fingers twitched. He stared at her for a long while, as if challenging herthat same, challenging stare from before. “You won’t do it,” he said. “You’re a thief. What use are morals and scruples to you? No, the book is safe with me.” The candles flickered. The room smelled strongly of moss and dirt. Elissa did not know why she had not noticed before. “You don’t know these people. You don’t care.” She stared at the journal as if it might burn. Her heart beat in tempo with the crickets outside. and in the walls.

“You’re right,” she said. “I don’t.”

The man smiled and patted the worn cover of the journal. “Smart girl,” he said. He pulled a small pouch from his vest pocket and dropped it on the table. She heard the coins jangle from within. “Your payment, as we discussed.” He picked up the journal and stood from his chair. “Do not come back to this place,” he said as he walked toward the stairs. “You will find nothing.” His feet thumped up the wooden steps, disrupting the discourse of the crickets.

Elissa remained in the room even after he left the house: the damp, mossy basement of an unowned home. She breathed in and tasted bitterness. Then, she took the bag of coins, the new leather crumpling in her grasp. She tied it to her belt, not bothering to count. The purse felt heavy. She glanced at the stairs then back at the secret entrance she had been instructed to use. Elissa sighed, blinked, then moved to crawl back up the narrow tunnel out into the night once more, where the crickets sawed and the stars whispered of her treachery.

Those Who Found Elissa: Chapter One

Those who found Elissa

Chapter One

Something tickled a strand of Elissa’s hair. Maybe a spider, she dare not move to brush it away, though when the tickle moved down to her throat she raised a hand and flicked it aside, taking flecks of dirt with. She imagined she was quite covered in it by now, a healthy coating to assist her blending in with the shadows. The night had swallowed her up and her pursuers were none the wiser.

Her thighs ached though, by Neniton did her thighs ache, and her ankles too; she could not move her feet into a comfortable place. One shift against the pebbled ground would give away her position. She raised herself slightly, untensing her muscles for a moment before easing back into the crouch. She had lost track of time. It could not have been more than an hour. Still, that was a long time for three drunk, possibly now sobered men to stumble around looking for her in the middle of the night. She heard them moving, pushing things, shaking boxes.

“Where are you, bitch?” one called out. She hid between the outer and inner wall of an old house. A loose wooden plank hung in front of her. She stared out the knothole at the men. Behind her, sod walls and support beams concealed her. Her right hand cramped from clutching at the worn journal she had taken. She felt the old leather crack and creak against her fingers and tried to breathe a little softer.

“Did she get beyond the wall?” one of them asked. The three dark silhouettes gathered in the center of the square. One of them spat.

“No one has seen her. She’s likely still in the town.”

“We don’t know that,” said another. “Maybe she knows a different way out.”

“No matter. Give the authorities a description of the little rat. Someone will find her.”

“And if they don’t?” one asked.

“I’d rather not think about that.” The three of them stood there, shuffling, swaying. They mumble to one another as they walked away, abandoning the dark square once more. Elissa breathed a little deeper. It was just her and the night again. She waited a while longer, despite the way her legs shook. Finally, she pushed the wooden plank forward on its nail and slid it aside. The fresh air felt so good in her lungs. She unfolded herself as she stepped out of her hiding place, holding back groans of pain when her joints protested. Her legs wobbled, but she had the journal. She sighed and brushed off her dark clothes. The morning dew was already beginning to collect on the cobblestone, though the sun had yet to rise.

Elissa set off in the opposite direction the men had gone. It would take her longer that way, but she would be safe. She stayed in the shadows and side-passages. Thankfully, no one else lingered on the streets that night. She made it back to the patron’s house easily. It was a shabby home, nearly identical to the others surrounding it. Pieces of the roof hung off itself; the windows were darkened. It was designed to not draw attention, placed in a shady neighborhood and surrounded by quiet homes. Elissa had to pause and admire her employer’s discretion. Usually, she took jobs from the wealthy. They often employed her to steal some meaningless trinket from a rival, and then gloated about having it once it came into their possession.

She shook her head and ducked down the side passage, a small patch of dirt between the two houses. Her hand searched along the rough wooden paneling until her fingers slipped into the catch. She stopped and pulled the false panel aside. She slipped into the revealed space and closed herself into the darkness. The passage was small; she stooped and felt ahead blindly as she descended into the basement. She finally caught hold of a curtain and pulled it aside. She stepped into the false wardrobe and opened the door, revealing a small, well-lit room. The basement held an assortment of candles and little else. A table lay in the far corner with two chairs. Her employer sat in one.

“Welcome back, shadowbird,” he said. The man dressed in plain trousers and a cotton shirt. He kept his beard well-trimmed, though not immaculate, and his hair was always presentable. On the whole, he made a completely unremarkable merchant. Though Elissa would be a fool to think him just that.

“I have it,” she said, ignoring the handle. She walked over to the table and waited for the next move.

“I know you do. You wouldn’t be foolish enough to return without it,” he said. The man stroked his beard lazily and watched a candle’s flame. The light caught the copper strands as his fingers wound them.

Elissa dropped the journal on the table. Her fingers ached as she flexed them, free of the burden at last. The man gestured to the chair opposite him, but she remained standing. “They searched for a long time,” she said, remembering the frantic shouts as the men had overturned the market square looking for her.

“Of course they would,” said her employer. “You would too if it were yours.” He reached out and laid a hand on the journal cover. He smiled and felt the grooves her hand had left in the leather before he hooked a finger under the flap and opened the journal. He turned the pages slowly, almost daring Elissa to look. She kept her gaze firmly planted on the table’s surface. She had no desire to be caught any more in this man’s business. “Ah, you did well.” The man readjusted himself and bent over the table to better study the pages. He pressed a finger to the page and traced the path of the lettering. “You don’t have any idea what’s in here, do you?” her employer asked. He stopped tracing and looked up at her.

Elissa shrugged. “It wasn’t my place to look.”

Her employer chuckled. “My blind little shadowbird,” he sighed and continued reading. “Perhaps you should have looked.” This time, Elissa could not help looking at the ink blots on the page. She could not make out words, but she knew they were not prose. No, he was reading a list.

“What does it show? Supplies? An incantation?” she asked.

The man shook his head. “Even better.” He shoved the notebook toward her. The ink blots took shape. “Names.”

The list was long, tightly packed with the short scrawl of people’s names, signatures, and little tallies written in the margins. “Whose names?” she asked.

“Traitors,” said the man. He closed the flap of the book. “Illegal practitioners, dangerous people.” The information chilled Elissa’s core. If she had just given a list of names to a Hand, she had killed every person on it.

“And to what purpose do you intend to use this list?” she asked. That was a mistake. Elissa usually enforced a rule: never know the ends to an employer’s means.

The man laughed. “You know what we intend to do.”

Elissa shifted. She stepped away from the table. “You can’t kill all those people.”

“Of course we can,” said the man, waving a hand. “We do it already. You know this.”

She looked down at the journal. “I’ll take it back.”

“I doubt that,” said the man. Elissa looked back at him. Her fingers twitched. He stared at her for a long while, as if challenging her. “You won’t do it,” he said. “You’re a thief. What use are morals and scruples to you? No, the book is safe with me.” The candles flickered. The room smelled strongly of moss and dirt. “You don’t know these people. You don’t care.” She stared at the journal as if it might burn. Her heart beat in tempo with the crickets outside and in the walls.

“You’re right,” she said. “I don’t.”

The man smiled and patted the worn cover of the journal. “Smart girl,” he said. He pulled a small pouch from his vest pocket and dropped it on the table. She heard the coins jangle from within. “Your payment, as we discussed.” He picked up the journal and stood from his chair. “Do not come back to this place,” he said as he walked toward the stairs. “You will find nothing.” His feet thumped up the wooden steps, disrupting the discourse of the crickets.

Elissa remained in the room even after he left the house: the damp, mossy basement of an unowned home. She breathed in and tasted bitterness. Then, she took the bag of coins, the new leather crumpling in her grasp. She tied it to her belt, not bothering to count. The purse felt heavy. She glanced at the stairs then back at the secret entrance she had been instructed to use. Elissa sighed, blinked, then moved to crawl back up the narrow tunnel out into the night once more, where the crickets sawed and the stars whispered of her treachery.